Drama Theatre, September 14


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Bessie Holland, Julie Forsythe, Caroline Brazier and Susie Youssef. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Karl Marx thought it religion that stupefied us into obeisance. Writing 127 years later, Dario Fo astutely hit upon what had become the new mass opiate: scandal – and this nearly half a century before Trump, fake news and social media! Imagine the Italian playwright’s nods and winks at our own Royal Commissions into child sexual abuse and financial-sector outrages – not to mention our infrastructure projects and politics.

Then again, however much red may stain the plush carpet of the Canberra Prime Ministerial office, it is merely stage blood compared with the atrocities that characterised Italian politics in the 1960s, when the right wing looked back longingly on Mussolini, and the left looked forward to revolution.

Rather than blowing up buildings, Fo opted to ridicule authority using satire, absurdism, farce and slapstick as weapons in a war to shake people out of their weary acceptance of corruption and oppression being inevitable norms. He wrote Accidental Death of an Anarchist in 1970, only months after an innocent anarchist had fallen to his death from the fourth floor of a Milan police station in which he was being interrogated for a bombing perpetrated by fascists.

Francis Greenslade and Sarah Giles rejected the temptation to set their adaptation in our own scandal-prone time and place, preferring to keep the setting in the original Fellini-esque Italy, but with one crucial difference: Giles, also the director (for STC), cast females in the six male roles and has dressed them in drag. At a stroke this compounds the grotesqueness, inanity and comedy, making the production funnier than reading the text is, time having not been especially kind to Fo’s brand of absurdism, which can sometimes seem merely silly compared with, say, Wilde or Stoppard’s bristling wit.

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Julie Forsythe. Photo: Daniel Boud.

Fo doesn’t write characters so much as mould puppets of the Punch and Judy variety, and so the more ham the actors can bring to the table the more entertaining are their performances, and this production suggests an entire piggery has been smoked.

All the actors have found the epicentre of their puppet-character, yet one stands out: the consistently impressive Julie Forsythe playing the harassed, irascible, slightly loopy Inspector Bertozzo. Where the others use drag to send up male affectations and lampoon hubris, vulgarity and brutishness, Forsythe manages to make Bertozzo real and hilarious simultaneously; her body language heightened, yet disconcertingly authentic.

That is to take nothing away from Amber McMahon’s consistently entertaining turn as the Maniac, our protagonist, who swiftly turns the tables from being interrogated to making the dumb cops dance to whatever tune he calls. Caroline Brazier is the suave and marginally more intelligent superintendent, Bessie Holland the malevolent slob Inspector Pisani, Susie Youssef the bumbling constable and Annie Maynard the only non-puppet: a canny female journalist invading a patriarchal loony-bin.

Jonathon Oxlade’s set is another star of the show, cracking the code of the Drama Theatre’s wide stage, while beautifully realising Fo’s instructions regarding a window and Milanese skyline, and adding some delightful touches of his own, including a Sophia Loren poster.

Fo wrote two endings, and Greenslade and Giles offer a third, which only seems to emphasise the play’s inherent problem: it leads us nowhere other than a spiralling zaniness. This may be needle-sharp commentary on our own era (and Fo’s), yet, despite this being one of the year’s funniest plays, you feel you’ve giggled for two hours in anticipation of a non-existent punchline, or scoffed one of those meals that soon has you hungry again.

Until October 27.